Orchestra Seattle | Seattle Chamber Singers
George Shangrow, music director
PO Box 15825
Seattle, WA 98115


Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, BWV 140

Bach was born in Eisenach, Germany, on March 21, 1685, and died in Leipzig on July 28, 1750. His cantata BWV 140 was composed in 1731 and first performed on November 25 of that year in Leipzig, under the direction of the composer. In addition to three vocal soloists and chorus, t he work is scored for two oboes, English horn, bassoon, horn, violino piccolo, strings and continuo.

The cantata Wachet auf ("Sleepers awake"), based on a hymn by Philipp Nicolai, was written in 1731 for the 27th Sunday after Trinity. The hymn is based on the parable of the wise and foolish virgins, and later turns to a description of the heavenly city of Zion. The hymn's three long stanzas and expansive melodic line, combined with the concept of Jesus' love for the soul as his bride, inspired a grand musical design: The three hymn stanzas form the cantata's beginning (for chorus and orchestra), middle (for tenor solo), and end (again for chorus and orchestra), while a recitative (first for tenor, then for bass) and a duet (for soprano and bass) are placed between the stanzas, producing an a-b-c-a'-b'-c'-a'' structure. (An anonymous librettist made extensive use of Bible quotations, particularly from the Song of Solomon, in composing the texts for the recitatives and duets).

In the extensive opening chorus, accompanied by oboes, horn and strings, the chorale melody is presented in long notes by the sopranos, beneath which the lower voices weave a rich contrapuntal fabric inspired by the words, rather than by the hymn's tune. The lines of text and the orchestral interludes are arranged somewhat in the manner of a chorale prelude. The twelve repeated dotted notes in the first four measures perhaps symbolize the chiming of the midnight bell. The orchestra then proceeds to add an independent accompaniment to the chorus, possibly picturing the approach of the heavenly bridegroom and the maidens' eager anticipation of his arrival. Out of these elements blossoms a sound combination of overpowering sensuous beauty.

The tenor recitative that forms the second movement is followed by a soprano-bass duet in which Jesus appears as the bridegroom of the soul, presented as one of the "wise virgins." The accompanying violino piccolo (a violin tuned a minor third higher) gives this duet a special glittering brilliance.

In the magnificent second chorale arrangement (the fourth movement), which is actually a three-part chorale concerto, the hymn tune sung by tenors is interwoven line by line with a (now famous) melody played by unison strings that is of a sweetness found rarely in Bach's cantatas; it may depict the graceful procession of the maidens going out to meet Jesus, the heavenly bridegroom.

In the fifth movement, a bass recitative accompanied by violino piccolo, strings, and continuo, the bridegroom (Jesus) is described as taking his bride to himself. Unusual harmonies introduce the sixth movement, a second soprano-bass duet, accompanied by oboe and continuo, in which heavenly and earthly love merge into one. Like the third movement, this is one of the most beautiful love duets ever composed, but it is almost ardent, though in a rather relaxed and dance-like way, while the earlier duet is yearning and mystical.

In the seventh and final movement, the chorus sings the final verse of the chorale in four-part harmony, while the violino piccolo added to the horn, oboes, and strings lends a special splendor to this "sacred bridal song" (Nicolai's title).

2003 Lorelette Knowles

Last performance:

Other works
on this program:

BWV 79
BWV 1066

Other Bach works:
Cantata No. 174
Cantata No. 196
Flute sonatas
Suite No. 2

BWV 140 links:
German text
English translation
Cantatas guide

Bach links:
BBC profile
ClassicalNet page

Good CDs:

The Bach Choir of Bethlehem (PA) performs BWV 140, paired with BWVs 56 and 159


Good books:

Klaus Eidam's entertainingly opinionated revisionist biography of Bach


The third edition of Malcolm Boyd's wonderfully accessible biography of Bach